I Visited a Ghost Village in Japan Full of Scarecrows

I got off the empty bus after a nearly 2-hour ride halfway up the mountains of Iya Valley.

The way up consisted of twisted, narrow roads with blind corners that were quite difficult to navigate for the average man. Our driver, of course, was not an average man. He manoeuvred these difficult roads with ease and practised efficiency.

My friend and I were the only passengers on board.

As my feet landed on the gravel, I already feel like there was something different in the air.

It was very quiet.

On the way up Iya Valley. 

So quiet that it felt like it was a tangible thing blanketing the whole area – as far as the eye can see, there were no humans around. 

Empty-looking houses dotted the well-trodden landscape, and one could also see the dramatic silhouettes of mountains in the far horizon.

I looked around with fresh eyes from sleep, excited to take in such a rare view of rural Japan. Gone were the overcrowded, tourist-filled places of Japan – here I was the only guest, tourist, and person who regarded this place with any form of new interest. When you mention the word ‘scarecrows’, the image of unsettling human-like figures usually springs to mind. Scarecrows, with their eerie stillness, are often the subjects of many a horror story.

And indeed, I was at the village of scarecrows – Nagoro Village, to be exact. It’s located in the heart of Iya Valley, one of the few vestiges of Old World Japan.

An aerial view of Iya Valley. | Source: Tokyo Weekender

It took some walking before we saw the scarecrows, but once they appeared, we realized that they were everywhere.

Outside the doors of houses were ‘middle-aged’ scarecrows pushing baby prams, farmer scarecrows were working on the field, and near the river an elderly scarecrow man was fishing.

I felt like we were somehow trespassing into some sort of sacred property – disturbing the scarecrows’ peaceful life where they were all paused in a moment’s snapshot of idyllic village life.

Every person in this photo is a scarecrow! How many do you see?

In the middle of the village was a white building that functioned as a town hall, and it was instantly recognizable due to all the scarecrows sitting outside in a row. The sliding doors were unlocked, and we were greeted by an even bigger host of scarecrows that were arranged around a table looking like they were having a fun meeting.

Truth be told, I was almost too spooked to go in. They did not appear malevolent, but they were slightly unnerving because looked incredibly lifelike.

They were well-dressed for the chilly weather – in warm clothing!

There was a side table with a hot water dispenser (and cookies!) with a note saying, “Please help yourself!” which was oddly endearing. A silent form of hospitality for a silent place.

This is a granny scarecrow. She’s nice.

According to a pamphlet there, the village formerly had about 300 inhabitants, but many of them had moved out due to urbanization.

The mother of these scarecrows was a kindly lady named Tsukimi Ayano, who started making them represent the villagers that have left Nagoro.

The residents were mostly supportive of her scarecrow-making, and some of them even donated their own clothes for the scarecrows to wear. Tsukimi Ayano has made an estimated 400 scarecrows so far!

Tsukimi Ayano, maker of the scarecrows. Sadly she wasn’t at home when I was there! | Source: Ina Jaffe/NPR

About 1 kilometre away from the town hall was the only school in the village. The wooden entrance led the way to a well-lit basketball court, and it was decorated with ribbons and lanterns, with brightly-costumed characters arranged in a circular fashion. In the middle, some of the scarecrows were having a wedding ceremony. Curiously, I found one scarecrow that looked like Donald Trump!

My friend at the basketball court. ‘Donald Trump’ is right under the umbrella.
The wedding scene up close. Did you notice the little kids have horns on their heads? | Source: The Flying Tofu

After our visit to the school, it started raining heavily and we got drenched despite our raincoats. As we walked along the road exploring other areas, an old lady came out from one of the houses and wordlessly handed us an umbrella. I tried to decline as I would be able to return it to her as we had to leave soon, but she was persistent.

As always, when Asian aunties try to offer you something, you’re powerless to refuse.

It was an act of kindness, and kindness was not out of place in this quaint village.

Personally, I feel like it’s important to evaluate why you are travelling. Some people do it for the photos or the glamour, some people like to build new memories with their loved ones, and some are just thrill-seekers.

Just chillin’ with my new friends.

For me, I feel like travelling strips away all of your preoccupations and leaves you bare to a new foreign environment – you see everything with excited eyes and you are very, very much living in the moment.

Here in Iya Valley, technology suddenly seems unneeded and even a little shallow. You’re surrounded by the abundance of life and memories of humans who have once lived here.

In other words, charming.

After walking around most of the village, we found a staircase leading down to the river by the roadside. The river looked incredibly blue, like a watered-down lapis lazuli, and it had a mysterious quality due to the multicoloured stones underneath and the overhanging fog in the air.

My self-taken picture does not do the river justice, but this photo does. | Source: TripAdvisor

I could not help but think about how Iya Valley was home to many legends of yokai (monsters in Japanese folklore), purportedly to have been inspired by the dramatic landscapes of the mountain. They certainly would not seem out of place at all here!

An illustrated guide of the kappa (water spirit) known to inhabit bodies of water.                                         | Source: Mythology.net

Climbing on big rocks, we spent some time in the river just basking in the atmosphere of nature. It’s rare to be in a place where nature overpowers humanity, and Iya Valley was one of those places.

I felt small, insignificant, yet still a part of this lush, green environment.

Nagoro Village, with its alluring views and quirky charm, would definitely awaken your hidden childhood fantasies of magic and nature. 

If you do not have a fear of scarecrows and have an adventurous spirit, do visit Nagoya Village.

In any case, I guarantee that the scarecrows will welcome you with open arms. Wink!   

By Xiuwei Wong

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